Doki Doki Literature Club (PC Review)
With cutesy artwork and a cheerful, positive description, Doki Doki Literature Club catches the eye with a disclaimer that reads: “This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.” What a mystery that line is. The description begins with the leader of the club, Monika, introducing herself and her three female companions. They’re a group of girls looking to participate in fun activities and, perhaps, pursue a romance with the nameless lead. Yet still, the eye wanders to that disclaimer. What could warrant such a warning, and could such an optimistic looking visual novel warrant it?
The message is ominous, but easily missed if readers don’t first check out the download page. It’d be a simple mistake to misjudge the game over its cover artwork and name—somewhat fading into the anime-inspired obscurity that paints much of the indie games on Steam. When first launched, Doki Doki Literature Club once again reminds players of its warning. Clearly, it’s not taking any chances and the concerns… might actually be valid.
Doki Doki Literature Club presents itself as a generic romance visual novel. Players are to project themselves onto the nameless—yet not mute—protagonist. Of course, players will name themselves too. Worth noting is that the first character to be introduced isn’t Monika. Instead, the protagonist’s childhood friend, Sayori, will be running late and catching up to her best friend. It’s typical and unoriginal. Purposefully so. There’s even an element of disdain towards her from the protagonist, tired of her cliché behaviour. Within a short while, the player is then pressured into joining the titular literature club lead by Monika. The rest of the cast is colourful and varied, each broadly capturing one of the main character archetypes often found in anime-inspired video games.
As a romance visual novel, it’s possible to build relationships with each of the characters and pursue them romantically. For the most part, players will select from a list of narrative choices; however, much of the affection generated is through creating poetry. Words are generated at random that players must pick; each girl has an associated set of words that would produce a poem to their liking. For the most part, this is the standard fare of visual novel play… until it isn’t. To its credit, small clues of the oncoming disaster often filter through the saccharine days of the literature club members. Some of these clues can be perceived through the casts’ poetry, each touching on a sombre theme that each may explore when pursued. It does not lessen the impact, and in fact, only strengthens it later.
Suddenly, the warning begins to make much more sense. There’s a self-awareness of the genre here that’s exploited brilliantly. Elements of psychological horror slowly take grip of the title, seeping through the cracks of the now-revised narrative. There’s no good way to describe this title without accidentally providing spoilers, however brief or subtle, but things are increasingly amiss. In a way, even the computer screen doesn’t protect the player from the events that transpire here. Mouse control may be hijacked, and a lot of visual elements are altered. At some points, Doki Doki Literature Club might be a little goofy or heavy handed, but even that makes some sense towards the end. It’s an experience, and an incredibly unsettling, hostile one that should be had with as little given away as possible. I really would love to say more, but I can’t.
Team Salvato have created an interesting and very creative title. A visual novel’s UI is often fairly simple, but the player is offered more control than they may first realise. Some solutions may require abstract thinking, but only because they break convention. There might even be a little bit of fiddling with the install files. Maybe. Fans of videogame-related “creepypasta” may particularly enjoy what goes on here. There’s clearly some elements of inspiration from those. There’s also a fantastic use of sound and visual effects, even if the title is predominately still and simple. Doki Doki Literature Club can be very atmospheric, and doesn’t rely on jump scares to get under the player’s skin.
Please make sure to save often, and know that the title doesn’t end until the credits roll. Be sure to give it a try: it’s free and only four hours long. Though, understandably, players that aren’t fans of reading may want to give it a pass.